The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 14 - finale

About the Work

Louis Vierne Composer: Louis Vierne
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Louis Vierne was born on October 8, 1870 into the family of a journalist in Poitiers, in west-central France; he was nearly blind at birth. Despite his inability to see properly (or, perhaps, because of it), Louis was especially sensitive to sound and he early showed an inclination for music. Henri Vierne got a job with the Paris Journal when Louis was three, and soon after the family arrived in the capital his wife sought advice about their musically precocious son from her brother, Charles Colin, a winner of the Prix de Rome, oboe professor at the Paris Conservatory and organist at the Church of St. Denis du Saint Sacrement. Colin recommended that little Louis be given a thorough general and musical education, so the boy was started on formal music study when he was six. An operation on his eyes later that year allowed him to distinguish shapes, read large print and move about more confidently on his own. (A typesetter at his father's newspaper devised a special large-type reader to help.) In 1881, after receiving a good primary education, Vierne entered the National Institute for Blind Children in Paris, where he excelled in piano, violin and organ. After graduating with top grades in 1890, he became a private student of Franck in organ and composition, and the following year he was accepted at the Paris Conservatoire. After graduating with a Premier Prix in organ in 1894, Vierne joined the school's faculty. In 1900, he beat out some fifty other applicants to win the coveted job of organist at Notre Dame Cathedral, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. He died in the organ loft on June 2, 1937 while performing his 1,750th recital at the church.

As a performer, Vierne was known for his brilliant technique and his endlessly inventive improvisations. As a composer, he wrote for chorus, orchestra, chamber ensembles, piano and solo voice, but he is remembered principally for his organ works, most notably the six large-scale symphonies that he created between 1898 and 1930. (He used oversized manuscript paper and scores when he was young but depended more on Braille music notation in his later years.) The Symphony No. 1 (1898-1899) closes with a jubilant movement-Vierne called it "my Marseillaise"-based on a broad, powerful theme in the bass showered with sun-bright figurations. The center of the movement is occupied by a contrasting thoughtful episode and a development of the bass motive before the opening music is restated to bring the Symphony to a triumphant close.